We were asked recently about the format for qualification for the World Cup in 2014(Brazil). This post is going to try and discuss how this happens in the major qualification regions. As a general glossary, here are the terms and concepts one needs to know.
tie- means a match between two teams, general involves some sort of seeded draw.
two-legged - there are two games played, generally home and away, though sometimes at neutral venues.
Group stages- all group stages include playing each other team in the group twice. Team A must play team B at home, and at the home stadium of team B. Thus for a 4 team group, there are 6 games played by each team.
There are three major stages of qualification from this region, which houses North and Central America and the Caribbean nations. There is also a preliminary round, where the lowest seeded teams play against each other for the ability to play in the proper first round. The first round is a collection of 2-legged ties (each team plays at home and away against a single opponent). This opponent is a seeded draw(the US usually plays someone like Aruba).
The second round is a 4 team group stage. Usually there are 3 groups and the top two teams from each group make the Hex, the final stage. Each team plays 6 games in this group, home and away.
The final stage is a 6 team competition, home and away, for a total of 10 games. The top three teams qualify directly for Brazil. The fourth place team plays against New Zealand
The European nations are split into nine groups, eight groups of 6 and one group of 5. Then home and away ties are played within the groups, for a total of 10 (or 8) games played by each team. The top teams from the first nine groups go automatically to the World Cup, and the 8 best second placed teams play off for the remaining 4 spots.
UEFA regulations ‘allow’ the tiny footballing nations equal entry into the group stages (San Marino, the Faroe Islands, Lichtenstein, Andorra) all play with equal billing to Germany, England, France, Spain. There has been clamor to stop this practice; yours truly however, thinks that plan sucks.
South America, the oldest continental organization of football, has a single large group. There are 10 teams that compete, though this year it is only 9 because Brazil is given free entry as the host. The top 4 teams qualify after each team playing all the other nations home and away. The fifth place team plays a play off (usually against Asia).
In Africa there are three rounds of qualifying. A preliminary round of home and away ties for the 24 lowest ranking teams. Then 10 groups of 4 nations play each nation home and away, with the group winners making the final round. The final round has a seeded two-legged tie system. Everyone plays against one other nation, and the five winners qualify for the World Cup.
There are five rounds of qualifying in Asia. The lowest 16 teams play two-legged ties to get into the second round. The second round then includes more of the lower seeded teams, to play 15 sets of ties. After that is the third round, where 20 teams are split into five groups of four. The winners and runners-up qualify for round 4. The four round has two groups of five teams. The top two teams from each group qualify for the World cup. The third place teams play each other, for the chance to play an intercontinental play off (often against South America).